Triple-layered polycarbonate laminated manifold used on BioSentinal

Talking One-on-One with NASA

Recently, Controlled Fluidics had the opportunity to interview the chief technologist for small payloads at NASA Ames, Dr. Antonio Ricco, and Mr. Matthew Chin, systems engineer at Ames.

Controlled Fluidics produces machined plastic fluid supply manifolds for experiments conducted by NASA Ames. Dr. Ricco and Mr. Chin were kind enough to tell us more about the latest mission in which they will use our manifolds: BioSentinel. We also discussed the use of our manifolds in instruments in development that will search for life on two icy moons in our solar system, Enceladus and Europa.

Q: What are your roles with NASA Ames?

Matthew Chin: I’m a systems engineer. I’ve worked with Tony for about seven years and have been with NASA Ames for about ten years. My roles include systems engineer and technical lead on several projects building systems to search for indications of life. I deal mainly in small payloads, about the size of shoeboxes, that travel on satellites. I’ve used about a dozen machined plastic manifolds for these projects.  

Antonio Ricco: I’ve been with NASA for about 20 years, focusing on small satellites used for microbiology experiments, like BioSentinel, with science payloads the size of one or two 2-liter soda bottles. About 7 or 8 years ago, I also got involved with the development of new instruments to look for life in our solar system. This hasn’t been done much since the Viking missions in the mid-1970s. We’re building new tools and methods, including machined plastic manifolds.

Q: What is the name and purpose of the mission you’re conducting? 

BioSentinel will fly on a small satellite that will be carried as a secondary payload–a sort of spaceflight hitchhiker–on the rocket for the much larger mission called Artemis-1.

We started BioSentinel in 2013 and started working with Controlled Fluidics to design machined plastic manifolds in 2014. BioSentinel will ride along with a dozen other small satellites, all of them Artemis-1 secondaries.

Each one has its own separate objectives. One of the satellites will fly around our moon and check out some craters. Another will fly to rendezvous with an asteroid.

What BioSentinel will do is look for radiation damage in the DNA of yeast as it travels millions of miles into interplanetary space. The reason we’re doing this is that space radiation is different from that on Earth or in Earth’s orbit–there’s more of it, and it can do more damage to living organisms. We want to understand radiation’s impact on biology in preparation for future human missions to the moon and beyond.

Q: According to NASA, “In the BioSentinel payload that will fly on the Artemis-1 mission, dry yeast cells are stored in microfluidic cards.” Would you elaborate on how the microfluidic cards contain yeast?  

The central bodies of the microfluidic cards containing the yeast are made of machined plastic. These have holes drilled through them, and on either side of those holes are various stacked layers of plastic.

Controlled Fluidics produces the fluid-supply manifolds that attach to the cards. Their function is to mount the microfluidic cards, to contain desiccant that helps the yeast stay dehydrated until it’s time to grow, to hold the valves that control fluid access to each of the cards, and eventually to channel liquid to hydrate the yeast when it’s time to grow, trapping bubbles that could interfere with the measurements or growth.

Q: Can you give us a few words on why the team chose yeast? 

Radiation is harmful to life forms, period. It damages cells and DNA by breaking it up, which can lead to conditions like cancer. We chose yeast because it is a eukaryotic cell like our own, with DNA repair mechanisms in common with humans and other eukaryotes.

In this experiment, the yeast functions like a canary in a coal mine, letting us track radiation damage even as it just starts to occur. The yeast cells will give us valuable insight into how DNA and nature’s own built-in DNA-repair systems respond when subjected to space radiation.

Q: According to NASA, “BioSentinel’s microfluidics card, designed at NASA Ames, will be used to study the impact of interplanetary space radiation on yeast.” How do the machined plastic manifolds need to function to serve this purpose?

Our purpose for using these components is to make sure that the cards containing the yeast and the supply manifolds remain stable when subjected to space radiation. This is why we use machined polycarbonate, which is robust and handles radiation well.

We don’t expect the radiation to damage the plastic, and it does not serve as a shield for the yeast. Rather, the radiation will pass through the plastic to act on the yeast cells. BioSentinel will be our first space mission to use these machined polycarbonate manifolds.

Q: What’s your vision for using microfluidics to reach your goals?

In the future, we hope to participate in a mission to search for life or its signs far from Earth. The destinations for our search are two moons: Europa, of Jupiter, and Enceladus, of Saturn. We chose these because they have enormous salty oceans under thick crusts of ice.

We believe that these moons’ oceans are some of the best candidates for non-terrestrial life, existing or extinct, in our solar system. So we are developing technology that can fly to these icy moons, gather information, and send that information back without returning to earth. The fluidics for these experiments will be even more complicated and challenging than those of BioSentinel, involving exceedingly complex flow paths and tiny inner channel diameters. And, like BioSentinel, they will have to travel into deep space and survive the radiation there.

The craft is sent off, and years later, when the destination is reached, the science instruments are switched on and begin to look for indications of life. We don’t anticipate meeting any little green men, but we might find signs of simple life, like microbes, or indications that life is present, like pieces of cells, viruses, or biochemical markers indicating past or present life.

To learn more about the machined plastic components we make for aerospace projects, contact us on our website or call us at (603) 673-4323. And be sure to check out our other guest interviews while you’re at it!